The sound of the silver arm banging against the alarm clock’s bells told Stephen it was time to rise. There was no sun coming through his cabin window, that was the life of a woodsman. Rise before the sun smiles and sleep after the moon yawns. He reached to silence the clock and winched at the memory of the cold side of his wife’s bed. Her pillow remained unwashed and still had her scent. His sadness turned quickly to anger as he smacked the clock silent and jumped out of bed.
Marlana’s soul was long passed from Stephen, it was high time he accepted it. It was hard, living along in the woods in Northern BC, Canada. He missed spending the time with Marlana but wallowing in depression wouldn’t put food in his belly.
Stephen didn’t turn around to make the bed. In fact, he never even slept under the blankets any longer. It had been his wife that made the bed last and he will keep it that way.
They lived off the land together, travelling into town occasionally to catch movies or a fancy meal but since she was gone, Stephen had not returned to town. He couldn’t bare to leave the cabin they lived in together, not even for a day to purchase supplies. For the last several years, he had lived solely off the land.
He had no need for slippers by his bed, he slept in his hunt gear and stuffed his toes into his hunt boots in the dark. He would have to move quick to get in place before dawn broke the horizon. That was his best chance to get an elk. His winter stores had run low this year, the garden had begun to fail. The soil was tapped out of minerals and with Stephen refusing to travel to town, he relied heavily on his meat intake. Soups, stews, jerkies, and plain old steak. The near sole meat diet kept the hair on his chest thick (even though it had a silver sheen to it lately) and his muscles responsive.
He knew about the grizzly lurking nearby. The farm was littered with its prints and droppings. Stephen had to keep alert, there was no way to contact town if he got mauled. Although that wouldn’t be the worst thing he could imagine. Nope, that would be living here without his wife. But here he was.
If he stumbled across that bear, he had a shot gun large enough to take of it and a knife sharp enough to make it a mighty fine rug for in front of his fire place.
His boots on, he quickly relieved himself in the bathroom, stuffed a granola bar in his pocket and picked up his hunt bag he had readied the night before. The only time he allowed himself was to percolate a tall travel mug of coffee before closing up the cabin and hiking into the dark forest.
“So, I don’t have to drink molasses like you,” he still heard Marlana’s complaints of his thick black coffee brew. Her words sarcastic but her smile so rich with love. They would have turned forty-five together this year, with a twenty year wedding anniversary only months after their shared birthday month of May. It was dead winter right now, as Stephen hiked away from the farm, closer to the edge of the forest. The moon had begun to dip, not giving the animals any light to see his movement. Perfect.
Even before the sun rose, the fullness of the evergreen trees filled the landscape. Created a winter tapestry in front of him. The heavy branches weighted down with so much snow it could kill a man. They leaned dangerously close to the ground, yet held the snow strong like bendable men. Birds slept silently in the depths of their nettles. Owls moved even quieter as they flew from one branch to the next, hunting mice beneath the snow pack. Their shadows blend in with the dark of the early morning but all too soon the sun would appear and their cover would be blown.
As Stephen trucked on through the wilderness, the clouds began to grow an ominous grey color. Soft oranges broke the horizon and painted the sky with one shade lighter of blue. He picked up his pace, he was still a few miles away from his hunt blind, hidden it the trees. He must be moving slower than normal, he thought to himself.
With the sun rise so closely approaching the aurora borealis had bowed out. The moon was now asleep and the night animals disappeared with the shadow of black. The song birds would be announcing the arrival of the bright sun shortly.
Last hunt season he had claimed a young four-point buck and proudly turned the deer cape into gloves, hats and new chair coverings. The meat was just that, meat. Hung and wrapped into his cold storage that shared its space with his pigs and chickens. The only storage space he had on his whole farm. He made good use of it and planned in the summer to have vegetables laid out ready to pickle.
The antlers he cleaned, boiled and kept with him on hunting trips. If he clanged the two antlers together during rut season, other males would come running. If it were out of hunting season and other animals (mainly coyote or wolf) began hunting Stephen, he would pull them out and create all types of noise.
His boots were heavy and he too soon found himself stuffing the granola bar down his throat for energy. No matter the price tag of hunting boots, they were still heavy and loud. He walked sure footed and silent, even in the snow he could be hear far too far away. Only the flow of the river in the distance absorbed the sound of him moving and as the sun gave more light to the surrounding, Stephen saw the path to his hunt blind appear before him.
He kept the tree line on one side and the sound of the river on the other as he pushed further forward. Down the cut line from an old gas pipe line. Stephen stayed just in the tree line and glanced around often, being sure nothing stepped out into the clearing. He would hate to scare away a kill that easily. This was his life, his only love now and his chance at survival. Hunting.
A loud crack startled him to a stop. He quickly shouldered his bag and looked around with his Swarovski binoculars. “The best money can buy, for the buy man a woman can find,” Marlana’s voice stayed with him always. It only made his heart ache worse. The binos showed nothing of interest. He peered through to the river bank and found the culprit of the noise.
The water was moving quickly, crashing against the snow-covered banks and breaking off pieces with it as it roared down stream. The winter must be coming to a close, with the water level so high from the beginning of melt. It made no difference to Stephen. He had nothing more to look forward to in the summer than winter. He replaced his binos in the hunt bag and continued the trek.
The cut line beside him narrowed and then ended. A trail off to his right went further into the woods along the river where he would chop his wood. If he cut straight through the woods to his left, after a half day hike or so, he would end up on the highway that would take him to town. His wife and him used to hike this route often. They kept their truck parked off the side of the highway in that location so that no one would bother them at their cabin.
Since Marlana passed, Stephen had moved the truck to his farm and left it there to rust and rot. The trail to the highway was heavily over grown and he hadn’t even allowed the thought of going in that direction occur to him.
The trees thickened in front of him as he pushed through the snow-covered shrubs and came to his hunt blind. Built around an ancient birch tree, the man-sized fort was ten feet in the air. Stephen had carved foot holes into the tree. He caught his breath for a moment before stuffing his hand into the first hole.
In his younger hunts, he would jump, grab hold of the man hole and swing himself in. He was getting too old for that and a broken ankle would mean death for him now. Marlana was no longer around to aid him. He was all alone.
Stephen reached for the opening and slowly eased himself into a chin up through the floor of the blind. It was made of planks of oak he had shaved from a tree that fell years ago during a storm. That same storm had flattened his cold meat cellar and left him to scavenge half his animal shelter for hanging meat. Marlana and him had spoke of rebuilding a larger cold cellar and then it happened.
He shook away the flooding memories before they weakened his muscles and made him drop. It was bad enough the grunting he was throwing out into the forest for animals to here. His knees collided with a thump on the solid wood floor as he made an entrance. A loud entrance but an entrance all the same. Some noises could not be prevented, sobbing in the forest could be. He swallowed away all thoughts of Marlana and hunkered down for the wait.
The sky grew in color, pastels meant for tapestries spread across the horizon and brought the tonnes of snow covering the landscape to shiny diamonds. They glinted and sparkled as Stephen scanned the surroundings. A slit in the blind just large enough for his gun to peak through, a pair of binos to perch on and his coffee travel lid to steam away.
A twig snapped.
Stephen swung in the direction with his rifle to his eye almost too fast. The coffee lid teetered on the edge but remained in place. The sound came from the direction of the rising sun. Orange shown through his scope, near blinding him. He had to pull the rifle back into the blind. With one hand only, and silent as a garter snake, he pulled the sun shade from his hunt bag and screwed it to the end of the scope. That would give some shadow over the brightness of the sun.
He repositioned his rifle and scanned the tree line. The sun was a burning ball of yellow now, the sky bright pink around it. There was no blackness left in the area, no more veil for him to hide under. If an animal stepped out of that tree line, he had to be sure.
Another twig snapped. The animal sounded large. Shrubs swayed and clumps of snow fell from the trees as the animal moved sideways from where Stephen was perched.
The sound went still for a moment and he feared the animal scented him. He turned his attention to the morning draft, trying to discern which direction it was moving. Was he down wind from the animal? Or could the beast smell him as if he stood next to it? He couldn’t be sure. A thin sapling suddenly swung and cracked and shook in his vision.
The animal was rubbing its velvet off its antlers. That put the species down from bear at least. Wolf too, it had to be deer, elk or moose. By the sounds of the size, it was a young bull moose. His mouth watered thinking of the jerky that would make. His pounds and pounds of salt would pay off yet! Marlana’s last trip…
The animal stepped out of the forest line.
Stephen slowly released the safety, holding his breath at the faint click. The antlers appeared first, soft brown like too much milk in your coffee. He counted the points on the bull elk. He wasn’t disappointed for it to not be a moose, more discouraged he didn’t recognize the more delicate steps of the deer family friend.
The elk’s head was dark brown, near black, like coals that had been burnt over night. The hair was thick around his majestic head before it wilted down to a thin skiff covering his body. Amazing from this distance how it looked to be near nothing at all. A coat that could never keep him warm enough in this weather, although the sun was warming quickly.
Stephen squeezed the trigger and braced for the recoil against his shoulder.
The bullet made contact with the animal, it was to the left from where Stephen had aimed. A small circle of blood appeared above the elk’s right hind leg. Stephen blinked in amazement. The 300-magnum bullet should have nearly blown the elk’s leg off. He must be further than what he thought, or thicker than what he appeared. The elk stumbled, looked to Stephen then bolted.
“Fuck,” he cursed aloud. No need to be silent now. The whole of the forest knew he was present. The trees parted then sprang back to their places as the elk disappeared into the white landscape. Stephen wasted no time jumping down from his blind, lumbering over to where the elk had stood just a second before and examined for blood drops.
The ground was torn up, deep prints in the snow showed him elk, deer, wolf possibly and definitely, a large bear. They went in all directions and with no blood drops showing him which were his elk, the guess was just that. A guess.
Sounds of crashing and breaking through the trees dimmed in the distance until Stephen knew he had to follow instinct alone. He wasn’t even sure how deep that bullet had hit, especially with hardly any blood. It could have been just a graze on the top of the elk’s back. He sighed and returned to his hunt blind. The morning was gone, might as well try to track down the shot, or not shot, elk after all.
With his coffee lid secured back in place, Stephen chose the most logical direction and hiked.
The sun, full in the sky now, told Stephen he couldn’t hike much further away from his farm. If he went too far, he would be hiking back in the dark and that was almost worse than a broken ankle. He hadn’t seen any definite signs of the elk bleeding out. He almost considered giving up when suddenly a shallow elk print had spots of blood. He picked up his own pace and found more as he continued. They were deepening in color, from a soft hue of a pink kiss to a deep red soaked print.
There was something else growing too, the sounds of predators that had also tracked the injured elk. The snow was getting shallower as he came to the base of a steep hill. He knew the ridge of hills bent to make way for the mountain ranges. He hadn’t the energy or supplies to hike the mountains but this hill would still be worthwhile. There were patches of brown appearing through the snow where the trees parted and the sun had more chance to beat on the naked earth floor.
Stephen had to purposely slow his steps as his breathes were coming shorter and more labored. He was burning upward, to a higher altitude without realizing. Trying to remind himself as far away as he hiked, is what he had to return with an elk packed on his back. With the size of the rack he had seen on the bull, it would take him three if not four trips with the meat.
He allowed himself a break to sit and drink water. Peeling the shell off a few hard-boiled eggs, he popped them into his mouth whole. Sloshing water in to swallow them a little less dry. The small stump he sat on was frozen and the cold seeped through his hunt gear. His legs were tired, his breathe had frozen on his beard and had begun to chaff his neck. His ears were covered with a hat but even that had begun to lose its warmth. The water bottle he drank from was beginning to freeze, it was quitting time soon. He had to find the elk, or turn back.
A mound caught his attention in his peripheral vision. He had been leaning so far forward, he had threatened to fall off the stump. He stood so quickly that his eyes blurred with tv static, blinking for several seconds, Stephen waited for the image to clarify. It was the elk. Camouflaged in the thicket of the hills foliage but there he was! Dead and ready to help Stephen survive another six months.
“Yahooooweeee!” Stephen jumped, in his minds eye he clicked his heels together but he wasn’t actually that limber. He ended up spilling water down his pants and spitting egg bits on the tree stump.
He gulped the remaining slushy water down and stuffed the bottle back into his bag. You can’t litter when Mother Nature just gave you an offering of food. Marlana would have been so proud, he smiled to the heavens before ascending on the elk.
He placed his trained hand on the elk’s cheek, “Thank you,” and began hiding the beast with the howls of wolves congratulating him.